By Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead
Christians in America need to reflect on two recent issues pertaining to Christian citizenship in a multi-faith society. In early May, Pamela Geller, a New York blogger and anti-Muslim activist, sponsored a “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas as a way of promoting free speech. In some segments of the Muslim world artistic depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden and considered blasphemous. In response to Geller’s cartoon contest two Muslim extremists shot a security guard at the contest venue before being killed by police.
In late May, Jon Ritzheimer organized an event where a group of bikers assembled as part of “Freedom of Speech Rally Round 2” with another “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Phoenix, Arizona. Only this time the event took place outside a mosque on a Friday during the Muslim time of prayer. Approximately 250 people showed up in support of the rally and contest. Some carried weapons, including assault rifles, and many wore t-shirts with an expletive as part of a slogan that denounced Islam. The t-shirts were part of the promotional and fundraising efforts of Ritzheimer to make prize money available to the winner of the cartoon contest.
The events in Texas and Arizona raise important issues for Christian reflection. As Christians, what is the relationship between our Constitutional freedoms as Americans and our interactions with those of other religions in a multi-faith country? What might we learn when we bring our civic rights into conversation with a theology of love and respect of neighbor?
The Apostle Paul lived in a multi-faith world, though not a democratic society like our own. Even though there are differences, we can learn from his various encounters. Paul showed respect to people of different religious traditions rather than ridicule them. In Acts 17, we find Paul in Athens, making a redemptive connection between the “unknown god” altar and pagan poetry and the God of Jesus Christ in Athens. In Acts 21, we find Paul in Jerusalem, taking a vow and purifying himself along with other believers to show respect for the Jewish Law. Respect, not ridicule, marked Paul’s various engagements with people’s religious traditions.
We might also apply Paul’s teachings on freedom in a fresh context. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses the use of Christian freedom in relation to disputable matters. In chapter 9, he discusses his rights as an apostle. At the conclusion of chapter 8, he cautions Christians about the exercise of their rights if it causes difficulties for fellow believers. His argument continues into chapter 9 where he discusses his rights as an apostle: there he writes, “But I have not used any of these rights” (v. 15). In these two chapters, Paul acknowledges that while Christians have freedoms and rights in Christ there are times when believers should limit these freedoms on account of love of one’s fellow believers and love of the gospel.
We believe these various biblical examples illumine Christ-centered, civil engagement in our multi-faith and democratic society today. Although American Christians have the right and freedom as Americans to express themselves in ways that offend and provoke Muslims and members of other minority religions, it is best to limit ourselves and not exercise these rights out of love for our neighbors and in keeping with Paul’s example. Moreover, we exemplify the better angels of our nature as Americans when we use our freedom to cultivate civil discourse involving those of very different positions rather than demean and destroy them.
If Christians in America wish to be respected, we need to respect others, including Muslims; we must not ridicule them and their beliefs. We cannot allow extreme voices and reactions from any corner to shape and poison us and our response. Authentic gospel witness and American civic virtue are at stake.
John W. Morehead (M.A., Salt Lake Theological Seminary) serves on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the FRD. John is also Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. He is co-editor and contributing author for Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, and co-founder and editor of Sacred Tribes Journal. John also provides expertise to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization issue group on “The Church and the New Spiritualities.” He has been involved in numerous interreligious relationships and active conversations for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism.
Paul Louis Metzger also serves at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy as a Senior Fellow and is a Charter Member of the Evangelical Chapter. Paul has also been involved extensively in cultivating relationships and meaningful conversations with adherents of diverse faith communities. Paul’s bio appears elsewhere at this column.